These are history-making days for women in sports. And it’s not all World Cup victories. Women such as Becky Hammon, Sarah Thomas, Jen Welter, Beth Mowins, Jessica Mendoza, and Stephanie Ready are making their mark in men’s professional leagues.
Last summer, Hammon became the NBA’s first female full-time assistant coach. In April, Thomas became the NFL’s first female full-time official. During the recent NFL preseason, Welter became the league’s first female assistant coach. And Mowins became the NFL’s first female play-by-play announcer for exhibition games. In late August, Mendoza became ESPN’s first female baseball game analyst. (Thanks to Curt Schilling’s infamous tweet linking Muslims and Nazis, and his immediate suspension.) This fall, Ready will become the first female full-time NBA game analyst for a local team broadcast.
Headlines and press releases celebrate this march of progress. And they should. But what kind of progress is it? Firsts are important, but so are the opportunities that follow. Or don’t. Take women calling NFL games. Mowins’s preseason play-by-play work for the Oakland Raiders came 28 years after Gayle Sierens broke that NFL broadcasting barrier during a late-season contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks.
Let those 28 years be a cautionary gap. Real progress is often slow, but the sports world moves on quickly.
As women break barriers in men’s professional leagues and draw positive reviews for their work as coaches, officials, and broadcasters, there should be equal focus on what needs to happen next. There’s no real progress when a female coach or official or broadcaster is a one-time deal, more novelty than new addition. There needs to be development pipelines for women who aspire to be the second or 17th.
And long-term planning is only part of the equation. To increase numbers, it also takes job openings, networking, and good timing.
“When you get into a situation like college football or like the NFL, there’s only x number of games on every weekend,” said Mowins. “It’s a challenge to break through because there aren’t a lot of guys that want to give up those jobs. You don’t want separate, you want equal opportunities. That’s what we’ve been working towards. The idea is you get your foot in the door, whether it’s preseason or not.”
Kudos to Welter for landing a preseason coaching internship with the Arizona Cardinals. That said, a woman who played professional football for more than 14 years, earned a PhD, and coached men in the Champions Indoor Football league strikes me as overqualified for an internship.
Not surprisingly, the Cardinals players and coaches praised Welter’s knowledge of the game. She called the internship a “great experience.” And the Boston College alum is optimistic that it will prompt offers of a permanent NFL coaching position next season. I certainly hope her time in the NFL leads to something far more substantial than Floyd Mayweather’s invitation to his Saturday night fight. (We’ll save the discussion about Welter accepting the invitation from a boxer with a history of domestic violence for another time.)
For all the fanfare surrounding Welter, the female coaching movement in the NBA inspires more confidence, seems more focused on sustainability. In late July, a few weeks after San Antonio Spurs assistant Hammon became the first female head coach in NBA summer league history, the Sacramento Kings hired Nancy Lieberman as an assistant coach. Last year, a handful of women were invited to the NBA’s coaches/general managers clinic in Chicago and observed NBA training camps. And there are plans to continue such mentoring this fall. The upshot: female coaches are viewed less as novelties and more as future NBA hires.
To be fair, the NBA has the advantage of the WNBA, and a large pool of women who grew up playing the game and competed at all levels. And the larger the pool, the more potential barrier-breakers, the better. Because, above all, men’s pro sports shouldn’t push a female coach, official or broadcaster into the national spotlight before she is ready.
There is no progress if firsts look or sound out of place.
In that context, if Welter starts as a coaching intern, if Mowins makes her NFL debut during preseason broadcasts, it seems a small price to pay. But that’s only if it leads to something bigger, something more permanent, something that creates a path forward for other women. If not, we’re back asking, “What kind of progress is it?”
Women breaking into men’s pro sports doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Far from it. There is a greater price. That comes when the pursuit of an NFL coaching job or an NBA broadcasting gig makes women’s sports appear somehow secondary. And barrier-breakers such as Mowins know that. It’s one reason why she looks forward to an annual schedule that includes NCAA football, as well as softball and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball.
“Quite often as women move up in this business the tendency is to move them into the pro sports and move them off of other women’s sports,” said Mowins. “Almost as if those are lesser priority, and I’ve always thought those championships for women are just as important.”
That kind of recognition, far removed from the headlines and press releases generated by female firsts, is equally significant progress.